Death of human rights activist who survived Argentina’s dirty war
A former priest and human rights activist who was kidnapped in South America for his investigations into the “disappeared” during Argentina’s “dirty war” has died.
Pat Rice spent nearly forty years in Latin America working in the area of Human Rights education and in defence of the rights of the families of the ‘disappeared’.
Born in Fermoy in September 1945, he joined the Divine Word Missionaries, studied at St Patrick’s, College, Maynooth, and was ordained in 1970.
His order sent him to Argentina as a chaplain to the Catholic University of Santa Fe and as an assistant professor in the Philosophy Department of the same university.
Dissatisfied with his pastoral role, he left the Divine Word Missionaries in 1972 and joined the Little Brothers [Hermanitos] of Charles de Foucauld.
After his novitiate had ended in 1973, he became a worker priest in Santa Fe Province serving as part of a pastoral programme to unionise forest workers and agricultural labourers.
In 1974, he moved to Buenos Aires, got a job as a carpenter on a building site and lived with the Hermanitos in the shanty town of Villa Soldati.
Following the coup in 1976, the military authorities viewed the pastoral mission of the Hermanitos with great suspicion and many members were forced to go underground.
Gross violation of human rights quickly became the hallmark of the new regime.
Mutilated bodies were dumped near Villa Soldati, including the cadavers of two Uruguayan members of congress.
In all, nearly 30,000 were ‘disappeared’ before the military were forced from power in 1983.
From 1974, members of the fraternity were detained and questioned over their human rights work.
On 11 October 1976, Pat Rice and 18-year-old catechist Fatima Cabrera left a prayer meeting in his parish in Villa Soldati.
They were suddenly surrounded by armed men and were bundled into an unmarked car and taken to a secret detention centre where they were tortured over a number of days, sometimes in adjacent rooms or in the same room.
Recalling those events, Fatima wrote recently that there were moments when she had the sensation that she was no longer alive.
Prompt action by the staff of the Irish embassy in Buenos Aires helped save both of their lives.
In December 1976, as Pat Rice was being released from jail his captors asked him to write something positive in their records. He wrote, with characteristic understatement: “I might have been treated better.”
He spent the rest of his life campaigning for human rights.
In 1976 to 1977, he worked in London with Latin American refugees. He was a founding chairperson of the Committee for Human Rights in Argentina. He went on speaking tours in France, Spain and the United States to denounce torture in Argentina.
Between 1978 and 1980, he moved to the US and helped found the Washington Committee for Human Rights in Argentina. He lobbied the US Government and Congress on human rights.
In 1979, Pat Rice helped organise with Senator Christopher Dodd a hearing on the ‘Disappeared’ in Argentina. He also worked with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
In 1980, Pat Rice moved to Caracas, Venezuela, where he lived with a community of the Hermanitos in shantytowns near the capital.
He began promoting human rights within the pastoral programmes of the local archdiocese. He also cooperated in assisting refugees from Haiti.
In January 1981, Patrick helped organise in Costa Rica the First Latin American Congress of Families of the Disappeared. He became one of the founding members of FEDEFAM (The Latin American Federation of Associations of Relatives of Disappeared-Detainees). He served as its Executive Secretary from 1981 to 1987.
As part of his work with FEDEFAM, he visited most Latin American countries to investigate situations of enforced disappearances and began to lobby actively at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.
He also represented FEDEFAM when, in 1982, it received the Spanish Human Rights award. He did a speaking tour of ten cities in the US organized by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation, and, accompanied by the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, received a peace prize.
With the fall of the Argentine military junta in 1983, Pat Rice returned to Buenos Aires.
Returning to Villa Soldati, he met Fatima Cabrera. He had last seen her in prison in December 1976. She had, in the interim, spent two years in jail and a further two years under house arrest.
They married in Caracas in May 1985. Two of their children were born in Caracas, and the third, Blanca, when they returned to live in Buenos Aires in 1987.
Living back in Buenos Aires, Pat became involved in human rights training and education at the Ecumenical Movement for Human Rights. He coordinated training courses, seminars and workshops throughout the country.
He participated in the Consultation on Disappearances in Africa, in Benin in 2002. He has attended the General Meeting of Families of the Missing in Croatia in 2002 and Patrick has also taken part in 2003 in consultations with the Office of Forensics and Missing persons in Pristinha, Kosovo.
In 2002, the Irish Diplomatic Mission at Geneva nominated him as the Western Group’s candidate for membership of the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.
He participated in much of the advocacy to gain approval for an international instrument against enforced disappearances. That was finally achieved on 23 September 2005.